The CubaCaribe festival ended this weekend after two weeks of performances and classes. The skill and energy unleashed throughout the festival were predicted and summed up in its opening night, though. There was palpable anticipation around Teatro de Danza del Caribe's sold-out debut at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts April 19. The company performed a mixed bill as part of the two-week CubaCaribe Festival honoring teachers and dedicated to recently deceased artistic director Eduardo Rivero.
In keeping with the Festival's theme, Rivero's Ceremonial de la Danza tells the story of Cuban modern dance training in an allusion to Harald Lander's famed Etudes, which presents a stylized series of exercises in homage to the endless labor of ballet. Rivero's piece proceeds from warm-up to technical brilliance in fast-forward, with rapid fire chainés, battements to the ear, and jetés en manege executed by women and men glossed in red and black unitards, delivering more flash but no less precision than its balletic counterpart.
Cuba, already known for turning out ferociously gifted classical dancers, including San Francisco Ballet's Lorena Feijoo, clearly also has a thing or two to show America in a style inflected by Horton and traditional Afro-Cuban dance. Ceremonial highlighted the accomplishments of Danza del Caribe's eight dancers, aged 21 to 24, every one of them possessed of prodigious skill and enviable facility. The piece is set to Handel's Hallelujah chorus played over folkloric drumming, a juxtaposition that illustrates the compelling combination of ritual, social, and Western concert dance that characterizes Rivero's oeuvre.
What distinguishes Cuban dance, as explained in an introductory film about Rivero and the company, are the undulations of the torso. With neither the muscularity of the Graham contraction nor the percussive isolations of belly dancing, these undulations are waves of earth and water, tribal, vegetal, and deeply rooted into the ground. The rippling spines were featured marvelously in Rivero's Destellos, a piece inspired by the form of the body as sculpted by Auguste Rodin. However, Rodin's sensuality was reinterpreted here as blatant sexuality, the dancers in flesh-colored bikinis and miniscule trunks looking more like water nymphs and exceptionally beautiful beachcombers than 19th-century bronzes. Nevertheless, as an abstract, the piece brought out beautiful lines and sublimely soft landings, especially from the men.
In Suite de Blues, the languid simmer of Destellos was brought to full boil in sultry solos and duets. Particularly memorable was the lanky Ana Virgen Masso scorching her way through a solo to Gershwin's Summertime. Current director Barbara Ramos's Merenseu, on the other hand, brought out the celebratory aspect of traditional dance with verve and drew the first and only smiles of the night to the faces of the dancers, who seemed to be genuinely enjoying themselves in a spirited display of energy met by a cheering audience. The company's fusion of techniques was shown to its best advantage in the closing number, the ritualistic Sulkary, in which three women and three men enact an cryptic sacrament, simultaneously regal and savage, holy and earthy, like gods or totems come to life.